Bolstering Tenure by Reforming It

U. of Colorado board receives long-awaited report and 40 proposals, with most dramatic changes slated for post-tenure review.
August 4, 2006

Mend it -- don't end it.

A University of Colorado panel -- created amid political demands to eliminate tenure -- is taking an approach similar to the one President Clinton took when faced with demands to abolish affirmative action. Admit that the system is flawed, but defend its necessity.

"Tenure is fundamental to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas, which in turn are essential to the intellectual health of the university," says the introduction to a 431-page report presented to the university's Board of Regents Thursday. The report makes frequent use of the "best practices" approach and declares without hesitation that having a strong tenure system is a best practice in higher education. At the same time, however, the report finds that many people involved in the tenure process don't fully understand or execute their roles, mentoring during the tenure process is inadequate, and post-tenure review lacks both the carrots and sticks needed to make it effective.

When the regents discuss the report in the weeks ahead, there will be a large elephant in the room: Ward Churchill. The university is currently trying to fire the controversial ethnic studies professor at its Boulder campus, after finding that he engaged in repeated research misconduct (charges he denies). The tenure report is based on an intense study of faculty review and promotion throughout the university system and in no way focuses on Churchill. But the study was commissioned amid national debate over Churchill -- and in the wake of repeated calls from Colorado politicians outraged by him to abolish or seriously curtail tenure.

Immediately after proclaiming support for tenure, the report notes the importance of having widespread support for the practice, well beyond the university. "The university's tenure-related policies and procedures need to be clearly visible and understandable to the general public and to the university community," the report writes.

Toward that end, the review of tenure policies included an in-depth look at 95 tenure cases during the 2003-4 and 2004-5 academic years. Only four cases showed significant deviation from the university system's rules, and in two of those cases, the university or committees acted where there was no specific rule to follow. One of the other cases involved a department reporting a split tenure vote as a unanimous vote. And the other involved a candidate for tenure having someone outside the university appeal to an administrator for an extra year, and for an expedited review process.

Tenure policies can easily be a source of discord among professors, administrators and trustees. When a board picks a retired Air Force general to lead a review of policies, as was the case at Colorado, more tension can be expected -- and there has been some low-level criticism. But faculty leaders have been involved in the entire process, and formally asked for the review of tenure policies. As a result, even with the lingering tensions over the Churchill case, the tenure report received generally positive reviews on Thursday.

R L Widmann, chair of the systemwide Faculty Council and an associate professor of English at Boulder, said that she saw the process at Colorado as consistent with shared governance and that most of the report's recommendations made sense. She also said that the report succeeded in looking at tenure broadly, not just the Churchill case. "It seems to me that we're looking at a large, complex institution," she said. "To me, it doesn't matter if one or two cases are out there floating. What we're looking at is a whole entity and not just a couple of anomalies."

The one recommendation Widmann objected to was a proposal that faculty members be required to sign a statement of responsibilities noting that they would comply with relevant laws and university regulations. Widmann said that a separate signing statement seemed too much like the sort of loyalty oath professors abhor as a violation of their academic freedom. Widmann said that faculty members were working on a proposal to combine any statement of responsibilities with more routine forms that new employees receive and submit, so that it would not have the feel of a loyalty oath.

The report repeatedly criticizes a lack of meaningful training for department chairs and other senior department members on how to be good mentors, and how to use pre-tenure reviews as substantive ways to encourage improvements.

The harsher criticisms concern getting rid of tenured professors who merit dismissal, and post-tenure review.

On the former issue, the report says that the university system should be more clear on what actions justify dismissal, and should recognize that having a high standard for removal -- as is currently the case -- could result in some tenured professors inappropriately remaining in classrooms, which "could result in students being adversely affected."

In addition the report urges that systems be used so that a review for dismissal could take place over the course of six months. The Churchill case, in contrast, has involved multiple reviews and committees and is not yet winding down after more than a year of controversy.

Generally, the report praises tenure reviews for being consistent, but finds post-tenure reviews to be inconsistent, not sufficiently linked to annual reviews that relate to merit raises, and lacking in the kinds of incentives that might motivate a professor who has job security.

Widmann, the Faculty Council chair, said that she thought the critiques were justified and that she was particularly pleased that the report wasn't just focused on punishments, but also encouragements. The obvious encouragement, she said, is a good raise. In states without a lot of new money for higher education, that's not always possible, but that doesn't make the issue go away, she said.


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